Back in high school, I met a man named Charles. His last name escapes me now, but it’s not important to the story. Charles was a large, imposing, friendly fellow. But Charles identified himself as an Apostle. And Charles was weird, and a tad unsettling. Where did he and his son go to church? Everywhere and nowhere. He didn’t really dwell on that.
But Charles spoke and interacted as if God had let him in on a little secret about you. And he acted like perhaps he knew you better than you knew yourself. More than that, he interacted and spoke as if he knew God on a personal level that you didn’t.
We exchanged email addresses, and for a while he wrote me letters as if he were the Apostle Paul and I was young Timothy, a young disciple after whom two New Testament epistles are named.
Vague platitudes, and profound-sounding insights into your spiritual, emotional, and mental condition – he presented himself like something of a fortune teller. And perhaps that’s how he thought of himself, after a fashion.
By this, I do not mean to suggest he would have affirmed or welcomed being characterized as a fortune teller; yet his attitude toward himself and those he interacted with – me, for instance – carried that particular flavor.
This is my interpretation and perspective on Charles. Maybe I was mistaken about him. And I don’t know where Charles is now, or what he’s up to. For that matter, I don’t really know where he came from. But I do know that when I began calling into question or disagreeing with some of his confident, vague, mysterious assertions about me, he evaporated. And that smelled wrong, and it still smells wrong.
I bring Charles up because he was untouchable, and not really knowable. He placed himself on a pseudo-spiritual pedestal. And it occurs to me that were he in better physical shape, or better dressed, or more sophisticated, he might have attracted quite a following. All for the better that he wasn’t and didn’t, if you ask me.
But on further reflection, what really disturbed me about Charles was the unspoken implication that he wanted to be my intercessor. And by that, I mean that he presented himself as something of a go-between in my relationship with God.
But why did I need Charles to go between God and me? I had Christ, so the simple answer was that I didn’t. And once I recognized clearly that this was at the heart of my discomfort with our interactions, and once I made him aware of it after a fashion, he was no longer interested in interacting with me.
The problem with Charles was that he seemed more interested in making disciples of himself than of Christ. And the problem with that is that authentic Christian discipleship involves genuine Christians teaching others to observe and obey all that Christ commanded us.
Where cults form is at the exact point where a charismatic or persuasive leader decides to make it about himself first, with Jesus and the Bible and spiritual-sounding phrases sprinkled in to throw insecure, hungry, easily deceived people off the scent of their own self-promotion.
This is not to say it’s realistic or healthy for leaders to lack their own personality, opinion, or conviction about making and being disciples of Christ.
On the contrary, God calls individuals all throughout the Bible – Old Testament and New – who possess and retain their own distinctive individual traits, gifts, and perspective. I am fully persuaded that many of these aspects of person-hood, flawed though they always are, are also inherently God-given, and that God intends his servants to flavor their ministry with them when he calls them to himself.
But the key and critical distinction is what’s at the center. Is it the leader, teacher, sage, or “Apostle,” or is it Christ and the gospel, God’s Word and ultimately Yahweh God himself?
The way we can discern what’s at the center is when the flavor and personal touch of a leader comes into conflict – real or perceived – with what God has clearly revealed about himself and us in the Word.
Now a key word here is “clearly.” And what seems clear to you and I may seem complicated and a little more open to interpretation to someone else.
But even on that point, this is where the absolute indispensability of studying the Word and praying for wisdom, discernment, humility, and courage come in.
Where there is an apparent conflict, the leader or teacher whose center is Christ will ultimately respond humbly and honestly to questions or concerns, and will in the end repent wherever they have erred, or else explain how their teaching, direction, and personal conduct are in accordance with the Scriptures.
Beware of persistent and intractable hostility and defensiveness, or stubborn refusals to engage in legitimate dialogue because they’re up there and you’re down here. That is a sign that the center of the ministry is questionable.
On this point too, however, it is equally critical that we do not hold others to a higher standard than we hold ourselves to. Do we demand our leaders be humble and patient, selflessly devoted to God’s grace, truth, and goodness? We must demand no less of ourselves.
Are we humble, patient, and wholly devoted?
Self-deception is such a poison pill. And it’s far too easy to tell ourselves clever, convenient stories – about ourselves, others, and God. Of course, we are the pure ones. We are the ones with genuine motives.
Yet this is simply not true if we lack the humility to consider whether we were mistaken.
Perhaps we did not know all the relevant facts of a situation. Or perhaps we did not correctly interpret those facts because the framework and worldview we placed them in subtly ruled out certain possible explanations before we’d really considered them.
But if we become angry and allow ourselves to remain angry, contented and self-justifying in our frustration and disgust because we cannot endure the possibility that we were or are mistaken, we quickly and thoroughly dishonor ourselves, one another, and our Maker.
As James writes in the New Testament: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires.”
No, this does not mean that anger is always sinful. I am not implying that you can tell who’s wrong by whoever gets upset.
Yet it is a well-established fact that anger added to the rest of our human finitude and frailty usually yields less than ideal results for our comprehension or appropriate response to people and situations.
And here is my confession: I am an angry young man.
Lies, injustice, needless destruction and suffering, and hypocrisy – all of these get under my skin. And when they get under my skin, I want to slay dragons.
There is a limited amount of virtue in this. And that limit is typically found at the intersection of wisdom and humility.
The goal should not be, indeed cannot be, reactivity. Not all responses to evil and injustice which first occur to us as effective counters are, in fact, equally praiseworthy and effective.
But therein lies the rub. If our aim is truly to respond to evil and injustice in a way that pleases God – in a righteous way – then we absolutely must take a deep breath and prayerfully remember what relevant responsibilities God has revealed belong to us.
There in James, for instance, we are told flat-out that man’s anger does not produce the righteous life God desires. And just as we cannot determine who is guilty simply by looking at who gets the most upset, we have even less reason to presume the opposite. Whoever gets the most upset is not necessarily the most correct.
If we fail to appreciate this, we become easy picking for leaders who make a show of supposedly righteous indignation as a way of avoiding personal accountability.
What’s arguably worse, we fall into the trap of supposing the very best time for us to react to a bad situation is when we are upset, or that the best solution to or evaluation of a problem is the one we reached when we were angry.
Make no mistake: there are dragons in the world. And we should slay them. One of the dragons is apathy and indifference, and it feeds off people going along to get along.
Where supposedly righteous indignation burns most brightly is where injustice and evil seem so very okay and acceptable to most people. When we find ourselves and those around us shrugging, then affirming this or that scaly beast even as it devours the innocent, it is only natural to feel a stirring of wrath – at ourselves and others for having so far failed to respond compellingly or successfully.
But then what? What comes after our wrath?
If we’re honest, sometimes we get off-track and make bad situations worse. And sometimes when we fight dragons with fire, we only burn up ourselves and those very same innocent people we saw needed saving.
And dragons aren’t typically affected by fire anyway. That’s one of the things about dragons; it’s what allows them to breathe fire. The fire never really burns them, only the countryside, peasants, peoples, and thatched-roof cottages.
Yet we are told in God’s Word to not repay evil for evil. Christ commands us to overcome evil with good. And we are told, enigmatically enough, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Distinguishing Friend From Foe
Admittedly, I struggle often with certainty where the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places end and the people doing evil things in our midst begin. And the answer to this dilemma does not seem straight-forward or clear-cut even now except to say that our souls have a chief Enemy, and he is not a man.
Yet for certain our Enemy does stir up people made of flesh and blood to do us harm and cause us problems. But even there, when other people seem to be our enemies, we do well to remember we and they are made in God’s image. And we are only going to effectively counter the machinations of the Devil when we remember what is true and good. And we find this out by testing everything against God’s Word.
Consider the Bereans in the New Testament book of Acts. They were of a more noble character because of how they responded to the gospel message Paul preached to them, searching the Scriptures diligently and earnestly for confirmation or refutation of each claim and assertion.
And what do we learn about God’s servants and God himself that the Bereans are praised rather than chided for having double-checked the message of Paul and Barnabas against the rest of what God had said and who he had shown himself to be in the Word? What we learn is that God and his faithful servants are not intimidated by examination from those who genuinely desire to know God, and to keep themselves from falsehood, deceit, and wickedness.
On the contrary, this is precisely how we distinguish friend from foe. This is also how we test ourselves, and whether we are behaving and speaking as a faithful friend of God and disciple of Christ.